“Where is the Democrats’ Barry Goldwater?” a Famous Television Journalist asked me recently. What he meant was: Where is the Democrat who has the guts to say what the late senator from Arizona said to Vice President Gerald Ford in August 1974 after the release of the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up? To wit: “The best thing he can do for the country is to get the hell out of the White House.” Goldwater said essentially the same thing to Nixon’s face in a meeting between Nixon and Republican congressional leaders shortly before Nixon resigned. So far, no leading congressional Democrat is known to have said anything like this to Al Gore, Bill Clinton, or anyone else at the White House, not even since Clinton’s admission that he more or less committed perjury in his Paula Jones case deposition.
That isn’t because congressional Democrats disagree with the commentariat’s outrage at Clinton’s misbehavior. (And, though Clinton’s alleged misdeeds fall well short of Nixon’s, Kenneth Starr’s forthcoming report to Congress seems likely to document an obstruction of justice allegation.) It’s because these Democrats are terrified that what happened to congressional Republicans in 1974 will happen to them in this fall’s midterm elections. The likelihood, though, is that it won’t.
The congressional election that followed Nixon’s resignation was, for Republicans, a legendary fiasco. The Democrats scored a net increase of 49 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate; it was the biggest loss of House seats for any sitting president’s party since 1958, a recession year. The incoming Democratic freshmen (including Tom Downey of New York, Tim Wirth of Colorado, and Henry Waxman of California) were nicknamed “Watergate babies” in recognition of their presumed debt to Nixon’s humiliation. The Republican incumbents they defeated were, by implication, Watergate casualties, killed off by their allegiance to a disgraced party.
The relentless logic of the Republicans’ 1974 experience, as it applies to Democrats running in the midst of Bimbroglio, would seem to be: Don’t let Bill Clinton resign in disgrace. Criticize his personal behavior, as one must, and then move on. Don’t encourage voters to view the Democratic Party as the scandal party. Hence the reluctance of Democratic leaders like Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle to imitate Goldwater (or then-Republican leaders Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Representative John Rhodes of Arizona, who were less colorful but no less firm in pushing Nixon out).
But what if widely held beliefs about the centrality of Nixon’s resignation to the 1974 election results are wrong? In fact, Watergate’s precise role in the Republican debacle is not clear. A few political scientists, after scrutinizing their regression analyses, have concluded that Watergate played no role at all. That may be ascribing a bit too much explanatory power to social science. But, certainly, a widely forgotten factor—the economy—played at least as large a role in the election as Watergate did. The 1973 Arab oil embargo led to long lines at gas pumps and double-digit inflation; unemployment, too, went up in 1973 and stayed high through 1974. In 1973, disposable income began two decades of stagnation.
Today’s boom, in contrast, seems to be quite durable (unless you think Clinton’s fall would trigger a stock market crash). Consequently, 1998’s congressional incumbents are surely less vulnerable to challenges from putative “Bimbroglio babies” than their 1974 forebears were to challenges from Watergate babies (who might just as easily be called “stagflation babies”). Says Everett C. Ladd of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research: “Watergate may have had almost nothing to do with the 1974 elections.”
Another possibility is that Watergate had a profound effect on the 1974 election, but Nixon’s resignation did not. As the University of California at San Diego’s Gary Jacobson, a widely cited scholar of congressional elections, explains, the crucial events that sealed the congressional Republicans’ fate may have occurred months before the resignation. The Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 had given a heads-up to ambitious young Democrats that 1974 would be an excellent year to run for Congress, and Nixon’s approval ratings confirmed that inkling by hovering at a dismal 20 to 30 percent from late 1973 until his resignation. By contrast, Jacobson writes in his book, The Politics of Congressional Elections, “Republicans expected it to be a bad year, and candidates and activists refused to extend themselves in a losing cause.” A measure of this was the extraordinary amount of money Democratic challengers were able to raise; in 1974, the average Democratic challenger spent three times as much as the average Republican challenger.
It might seem that Bimbroglio, which has been kicking along since January, presented no more sudden a windfall to Republican activists than Watergate did to Democratic activists in 1974. But there’s a key difference: whereas Watergate (again, surely in combination with a sagging economy) dragged Nixon’s poll ratings down early in the election cycle, Bimbroglio has yet to drag Clinton’s down at all. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted August 19-21 showed Clinton’s approval rating at 66 percent, a whisker short of his all-time high; true, only 28 percent said he was “honest and trustworthy,” but voters have never thought highly of Clinton as a person (as Opposed to Clinton as president). The popularity not only of Clinton but also of most congressional incumbents of both parties has deterred challengers. As of this writing, 95 House members—57 Republicans and 38 Democrats—face no major party opposition in November. This suggests that incumbent Democrats fearful of tarnishing Clinton’s (and their party’s) image by calling on him to resign are being too skittish. In many instances, it’s simply too late for strong opponents to emerge.
But what about turnout? Won’t the loss of a popular leader discourage the Democratic faithful from going to the polls? After all, low-turnout midterm elections are all about “energizing your base.” In 1974, voter turnout for the House elections fell to 35.9 percent, down from 43.5 percent in the previous midterm election year of 1970. The falloff is widely attributed to Republican voters’ disgust with Nixon. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Republican apathy grew appreciably after Nixon resigned. Rather, it was President Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon for Nixon, announced on September 8, 1974, that seems to have turned Republicans off, according to polls. After the pardon, Ford’s own approval rating dropped 15 points, practically overnight.
Perhaps what really enraged the public about the Nixon pardon was the suspicion that Nixon secretly cut a deal with Ford before leaving office. Indeed, a September 1974 poll commissioned by Time magazine showed that 71 percent of Americans did not believe that Ford had told them the whole truth about the pardon. The pardon probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
Al Gore might avoid a similar fate by making any pardon-for-resignation trade explicit and public. My fellow Americans, he could say, I cut this deal out of compassion and a desire for closure. It’s certainly reasonable for the president to fear that Ken Starr aims not just to remove him from office but to install him in a jail cell. By crafting, in public, a golden parachute for Clinton, Gore would be doing both the president and the country a favor; there’s even a decent chance both would recognize it as such. Surely a suitably swift and humane resignation is better than the alternative—for Democrats endlessly to defend Clinton on the theory, implicit or explicit, that his behavior wasn’t “very” criminal.